It never crossed my mind to skip microchipping my cat or dog. For me identification was just a part of their routine health care, and for that I was grateful when four years ago my cat, Simon, escaped from my apartment when I was traveling out of state. Simon was missing for two weeks before he walked up to a good Samaritan, who picked him up and took him to a local clinic that scanned him and found his microchip. Irresponsibly of me, I hadn’t updated his contact information with the microchip organization in more than a year, but they were able to contact the veterinary clinic where it had been implanted and help reunite me with Simon within 24 hours. It wasn’t our Facebook posts or “Lost Cat” posters or trips to local shelters that did the trick. It was the simple and relatively inexpensive microchip.

Why, then, is it so much less instinctive to microchip our equine companions? A horse is less likely to “run off,” but there are many situations where having a way to positively identify a horse would come in handy. The Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) has been using microchips for years to verify that horses entered in various high levels of sport are who the owners say they are. It was only a matter of time before the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and other organizations followed suit. 

Keeping track of points and wins helps keep horse sport fair, but microchips help with much more than that. They are a way veterinarians can protect themselves during prepurchase examinations to ensure they are doing the exam on the correct horse, and they protect the potential buyer in the same way. Microchips can be used to help solve disputes on horse ownership (if records are kept up to date) and to identify horses that have fallen victim to abuse or hard times or, heaven forbid, been stolen. Busy breeding sheds could use microchips to verify that the correct mare is being bred to the correct stallion. The possibilities are endless for a tool that allows people to distinguish between two gray horses, for example, that are identical besides their whorl patterns. 

Beginning Dec. 1, 2017, horses that will be registered with USEF and will be competing in age, experience, or breed-restricted classes must be microchipped. In 2019 this will include all horses competing at USEF competitions. The Jockey Club has also announced that it will require Thoroughbred foals of 2017 and later to be microchipped.

Inserting a microchip is a relatively simple procedure that’s innocuous for the horse. The most important step for the veterinarian is making sure to use an approved 15-digit chip. Some horses require sedation or a local anesthetic block over the insertion site, which is at the middle of the left side of the neck, just below the mane, in the nuchal ligament. Most horses don’t need either of these safeguards and stand quietly through the procedure for just a peppermint. The veterinarian must prep the site sterilely (cleaned to the point they could perform surgery on it) and then insert a 14-gauge needle—the size of a small chopstick—under the skin and into the ligament and inject the chip. The whole procedure usually takes less than 15 minutes, and although costs vary depending on whether the horse needs to be sedated or if a farm call needs to be included, they generally run between $50 and $100.  

Once the microchip is inserted, anyone with a microchip scanner can scan the horse’s neck and retrieve the number. Currently, this number would be stored with the clinic that inserted it, and the owner would be responsible for placing the number with USEF or any other breed registries or organizations the horse is a part of. In the future more registries will likely allow you to store your horse’s vaccination history or any other useful medical information. (I can only imagine a world where whether horses have been castrated or had reactions to penicillin or have recently had a tetanus vaccination could be easily accessible, and how great that world would be!) 

Microchips are impossible for a layperson to remove, and any attempts by a veterinarian to do so would leave a huge scar. They are inert, and most horses do not have reactions to them, save some that might develop small localized swelling in the few days after insertion. Overall, the benefits of microchipping far outweigh any risks.